Sunday, October 01, 2006

Epistemology, the Consensus of Scholars, and Historical Truth

One thing that people don't take time to think about -- but they really should -- is epistemology. How do we know what we know? How much can we know for sure? Well, I can answer that last question for you -- NOT MUC H. EVERYTHING we do in life takes a huge amount for granted, taking a whole host of assumptions and ideas more or less "by faith." This is not to mean we should be nihilistic about knowledge, but instead just recognize that our knowledge of the world is grossly limitted and bound because it just isn't possible to know with certainty the kind of stuff we would like to know with certainty.

This is why science doesn't "prove" anything. Instead, they show reasonable evidence. You only get to prove things in math and logic, because there it doesn't deal with the real world, only how your stated assumptions interact.

There are even more epistemological problems with history. First of all, we can't do rigorous, repeated experiments to test our knowledge Everyone we are interested in is dead, and we can't remake historical situations to test them out. Second of all, LIFE IS COMPLICATED! I sometimes have trouble telling people when they ask me a simple "why is X this way" in my job, because usually it takes about an hour to explain, and the history is so convoluted, someone would accuse me of making it up if I told them!

This is why, when reading history, I often take the side of the historians of the current time, even if they are in disagreement with other historians of their time. Life is complicated enough that just about any seemingly-contradictory happening might in fact be true -- we would need only to know the circumstances. Thus, historians seem to borrow the physicist's razor when talking about history, and that almost certainly leads to a false understanding.

For example, let's say that two biographers were studying my family. During the interview, let's say one asked me how many children my wife and I have had, and another biographer asked my wife. I would have told them 4, but my wife would have told them 2, and both numbers would be correct depending on how you look at it. In fact, 2, 3, and 4 would all have been correct answers to this seemingly simple question (I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how all three numbers would have been valid -- and it has nothing to do with adoptions, twins, or other marriages).

Descartes attempted to construct knowledge from first principles. He failed totally. The only thing he actually managed to prove was his own existence (he thought he proved more, but really he was incorrect). Many people in the modern world try to base their epistemology on science. But if the goal is to only commit to knowing what is proven, then this is fully irrational exercise. What you are doing is simply taking the assumptions of others as your own, but without knowing it.

What's even more interesting is the history of science. Many people have the false assumption that good ideas flow directly from experimental results. But in fact this is not the case. Ideas often predate good evidence for them, and scientists have to essentially take the ideas "on faith," even when they are contrary to known laws, ideas, and empirical results, until they have explored it enough that they can convince others. This may sound grossly unscientific, but in fact many of our fundamental moves in science are based on this. For example, let's take heliocentrism. Most people are unaware how shaky the evidence for heliocentrism was when it was proposed by Gallileo. The fact is, at that time, most of the evidence was against it. One of the key observations needed to establish it -- parallax motion of the stars, was missing (it turns out it was just because their telescopes weren't powerful enough -- but they didn't know that until centuries laters). And it also turns out that the argument which Gallileo thought was the clenching argument -- that the tides are produced from the sloshing around of the earth as it moves through space -- is also completely false. So, one of the most fundamental shifts in astronomy had to be held "on faith" in contradiction to the empirical evidence (and supported by bad arguments) for over a century. But yet it seems despite his lack of knowledge about why heliocentrism is true, Galileo was right! Not only that, but this sort of history of an idea is not unusual. Good ideas usually have to be held by proponents in contradiction of facts for quite some time, until they can work out (or others can work out) how the idea can be true.

All this to point out that there is no good way to establish what is true. In fact, it seems that the primary mode of reasoning in all of this is not facts, physics, or anything at all except plain choice. You have to choose what you believe. You have to choose what your starting assumptions are. There are no paths around this. Knowledge is a product of choice. Facts and other things can influence you, but choice is the more fundamental component.

This is why I think that constant appeals to "scholarly consensus" or any other such nonsense in textbooks is silly.

First of all, in most cases, there is no way for an author to make such a statement. Did they do a poll? Probably not. It is probably based on the number of articles in the journals read by the author making that statement about each position, and how much weight the author gives to other authors in his field. Also, it could also be that the scholarly consensus is against the view that has the majority of publications, but the adherents to that view simply think that their case is already adequately covered by other scholarship, and are merely snickering to themselves about all of the new papers. This is additionally compounded by the fact that many scholars don't qualify anyone of faith as academic scholars (I don't have the reference at the moment, but will post it in the comments if I find it). So does that mean when those people talk about a "scholarly consensus," that they aren't including anyone of faith?

But that isn't even the point. A consensus of scholars doesn't get us any closer to the truth, it only gets us closer to the truth about what the scholar's preferences are. Take for instance the many claims of pseudonymous writing in the New Testament. If scholars are to be believed, most of the New Testament was written under false names. But there is a huge epistemological problem here. For example, let's just say that it is true that Peter did not know Greek well enough to write either 1 Peter. So what? What if he used a translator? A scribe? What of it? What if he gave someone the idea to argue, and that person argued it in good Greek style. Is that any different than an architect giving directions to workmen? In fact, we claim that architects "built" a structure even if they didn't lay a single stone! Scholars often argue that such opinions are ad hoc. They are not. They are only ad hoc if we had invented the idea that Peter wrote Peter. But instead it is attested to historically and in the text itself. The fact that it cannot simply be rectified with the known data is irrelevant -- this is LIFE we are talking about. Life is always full of the unexpected, and complex twists are a part of nearly every day. So this insistence that the data must all support a single conclusion or else that conclusion is wrong simply doesn't stand up to what we know about how life works. And the insistence that facts must support a simple explanation simply reflects the preferences of the scholars, and in fact is contrary to what we know about how life works.

The choice to think that Peter (this is just an example -- we could be talking about just about any book in the Bible or antiquity) is written under a falsely attributed name is just that -- a choice. It isn't _based_ on the data. The data we have is that the early church fathers thought that at least one of Peter's epistles (if not both) were authentic. The fact that a lot of scholars choose to believe this is more of a product of their shared values and prejudices than it is a rerflection of the epistles themselves. This doesn't mean they are incorrect or that their reasoning should be ignored, but rather we are fooling ourselves if we think too much of the "scholarly consensus" as a foundation of knowledge, or if we don't acknowledge that whatever our position on the subject will be as much of a reflection on us and our thought as it is on the truth. And this isn't just for authorship, this is any fact or reconciling of facts in ancient works.

I wish I could give you a better outline to ascertaining truth, but the fact is that ultimately you just have to choose. People who say otherwise are usually deceived, and are unknowingly following the choices of others, and pretending them to be objective truth.

It's not that I don't think that such things shouldn't be debated, but instead I think the facts should be given both their best and worst spin, and ultimately we have to make a choice about what to believe.


At 10/01/2006 9:50 PM, Anonymous cseminarian said...

Here's the article I was referring to:

Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View


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